PEN hails releases of Tunisian e-zine writer and Cuban journalist
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
New York, NY, November 19, 2003—PEN American Center hailed the release this week of Zouhair Yahyaoui, an Internet activist whose popular electronic magazine earned him a 2-year prison term in Tunisia. Yahyaoui was one of two recipients of PEN’s 2003 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards; his release came just a few days after the release of co-recipient Bernardo Arévalo Padrón, an independent journalist who served a six-year prison term for calling attention to rights violations in Cuba. The PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards honor international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression. Of the 27 who were in prison at the time they were honored, 23 have been subsequently released.
Zouhair Yahyaoui (whose pen name is “Ettounsi,” “the Tunisian”) founded TUNeZINE.com shortly after graduating from college to disseminate information on the struggle for democracy in Tunisia and publish opposition material. The e-magazine ran scathing reports of human rights violations in Tunisia, critiques of the 15-year-long regime of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, challenges to the tourism industry and discussion boards for visitors. He was arrested on June 4, 2000, at the Tunis cyber café where he worked and subsequently tried and sentenced to one year in prison for “propagation of false news” and an additional year and four months for “non-authorized usage of an Internet connection” and “theft from an employer.” His sentence was reduced on appeal from 28 months to two years; he served seventeen months of that sentence.
Agence France Press carried news of Mr. Yahyaoui’s release yesterday towards 11 a.m., French (and Tunisian) time. Shortly afterwards, Mr. Yahyaoui returned to his family house and ended the hunger strike he started on November 2. While he is very weak and suffers from dental abscess, his fiancée, Sophie Piekarec, reports that he seemed to be mentally strong when she talked to him on the phone yesterday afternoon. “Two years are nothing compared to the long sentences of some of my fellow prisoners,” Mr. Yahyaoui observed after his release.
Bernardo Arévalo Padrón is the founder of Linea Sur Press, an independent news agency based in Cienfuegos. He created the agency with the goal of making the Cuban public aware of the ways in which their government was violating their fundamental rights. He was arrested by State Security Agents on August 14, 1997 and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. His sentence was due to expire on November 15, 2003. Pedro Castellanos, leader of the banned Democracy Movement party, said Mr. Arévalo Padrón phoned him on November 13 to say he had been released that morning and handed his official release certificate without explanation. Arévalo Padrón reportedly told Castellanos that he was planning to resume his writing as a member of the José Maceo independent news agency.
Calling the releases positive developments, Freedom to Write Program Director Larry Siems expressed PEN’s hope that both men would be allowed to resume their professional activities freely and without intimidation. “Both Zouhair Yahyaoui and Bernardo Arévalo Padrón created the means to disseminate information that their governments did not want to see the light of day,” Siems said. “The true test for both Tunisia and Cuba is whether those avenues for reporting will be allowed to exist.”
“In the case of Cuba,” Siems added, “PEN will be watching closely to see if the long-awaited release of Arévalo Padrón is followed by action in the cases of dozens of journalists and human rights activists jailed in a crackdown earlier this year. Our concern for these jailed writers and dissidents is only increased by reports that Mr. Arévalo Padrón was severely mistreated during his six years in detention.”
Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660, ext. 105